Too Late for Earth, Too Soon for the Stars

The allure and desolation of open world video games

By Cade Diehm

After journeying through the deep space of Elite Dangerous for several hours, my playing companion and I return to our own solar system and approach the dark side of Earth. Image: Courtesy Frontier Developments

  • 22 September 2023
  • Issue 8

On a twilight autumn morning in the middle of the 2020 pandemic lockdown, I pull open my ship’s navigation computer and plot the final jump to Sol. I feel a disassociation I commonly experience on a long-haul international flight, the sense of being in two places at once. In one world, I’m in Berlin, slumped at my home office desk in the pitch dark, shivering in the unseasonably cold morning air. In another, I’m flying a two-person spacecraft with my passenger, a close friend who has agreed to my excited and persistent invitation to “come see home.”

We are playing the virtual-reality version of Elite Dangerous, a popular massive-multiplayer online space exploration game. We have been playing for four hours because we are traversing space back to our home solar system, across a stunning and physically accurate 1:1 representation of the Milky Way. As I carefully plot a faster-than-light path through space, we gaze upon the alien constellations, dwarf stars and dual suns that we jump to along the way. Our path through the galaxy is depressingly devoid of life, save for the two of us and an ever-expanding (and violent) player-driven human colonization. We talk a lot, with the intimacy of a late-night road trip. My ship heaves like a truck at every faster-than-light jump. We can almost feel its vibrations.

A video capture of my ship skimming the surface of a small moon/rock as it slingshots itself between a sun and an Earth-like colonized planet. In this clip, I am on "top" of the rock as it passes the planet. It's essentially a front-row view of a near miss between two interstellar objects—an almost-apocalypse for the population on the planet's surface. Playing this game since 2015, it's the first time I've encountered such a stunning scenario.

Video gameplay: Courtesy Frontier Developments

Adjusting my VR headset, I glance again at the navigation computer and am surprised when our own, recognizable solar system becomes visible. The planets, moons and satellites of Sol are tiny specks against a sea of stars and black, but my ship’s augmented reality interface highlights them for us. Their names and orbital locations spark a weird familiarity, like pulling up a Google Street View of the neighborhood where you grew up. My passenger and I have talked for hours, but our conversation dies down as we draw closer to Earth. The space traffic around Mars is teeming, and although these are likely non-player characters, our relief at seeing human activity after hours in the isolating ink-black of deep space is palpable. Cutting through the silence, my passenger blurts out, “Mars is busier than I remember.”

In Elite Dangerous, the game world is set far in the future, the year 3306, but the clock is synced to Coordinated Universal Time, or U.T.C. My passenger and I are coming home to Earth but also to a different millennium. We arrive in the shadow of the planet, right above the Baltic Sea. Before us is home, the Blue Marble—Earth. It is dark in the Western Hemisphere, and the glow of civilization at night is visible from this vantage point. Given the trauma of the recently locked-down pandemic world, I feel a strange comfort that the planet is safe in the future. The physical world and this metaverse line up perfectly to give way to a third space—what I’ve described in previous writings as the “para-real.” For a few ephemeral minutes, I am both here and there, dazed by the beauty of the artificial wilderness before me. The sun is rising in my apartment, and I also watch it rise from 45,000 kilometers above my own body, 1,286 years in the future. I can feel myself above me.

Within the vastness of Elite Dangerous’ interstellar world, sightseeing players find planets or systems with visually stunning landscapes or landmarks, and then often share the location on Reddit and Discord. Here, I am standing on a mountaintop as directed by a player from the broader Elite Dangerous community, watching a neutron star as it passes through the interlocking orbit of two suns. It’s like watching an eclipse. Image: Courtesy Frontier Developments

It is an eternity before my shipmate speaks: “I wonder if this is how astronauts feel the first time they see Earth.” A thought occurs, filling me with sadness. I realize that we are the middle children of human history—born too late to explore the Earth, too soon to explore the stars.

The overwhelming beauty of visiting Elite Dangerous’ future version of our solar system is famous among the game’s player base. Players who live-stream on Twitch have broken down in tears in front of their audiences as they watch the sun rise from orbit upon returning to Earth or after tracking down the Voyager probe and hearing recordings of peace. This is the appeal of the open world genre, where play and exploration mechanics mix with in-game social interactions in a beautiful and often hyperreal environment that can engender profound and unexpected interactions between players.

These experiences are also deeply bound to the social and personal lives of the players. As players come of age and abandon games targeted at younger audiences, such as Minecraft, the servers containing their worlds are often left behind and forgotten. But they remain online, in vast, always-on data centers that are full of the digital dreams of youthful players, awaiting connection requests that will never come. Dedicated online communities—such as the /r/Minecraft-Archeology subreddit—have formed to discover and archive these abandoned servers. In the process, the archivists often uncover intimate remnants scattered across these spaces—memories and markers of flirtation, first loves, journals chronicling teenage loneliness, remote monuments of grief for lost friends. Elite Dangerous features large structures floating in the darkness of space, in which players can leave messages to memorialize deceased players or other people from their lives. It is not uncommon to come across one of these structures and see a lone player spacecraft drifting alongside it, quiet in contemplation.

Minecraft and Elite Dangerous are only two of the more celebrated examples of this kind of digital-born, game-based social phenomenon. There are many more—Elden Ring, Animal Crossing, Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft—all, despite their commercial success, vastly under-appreciated touchstones of late 20th- and early 21st-century cultural life. Central to the genre is the creation of immensely elaborate simulated worlds that contain countless details similar to ours, making them highly believable and appealing places to spend time. The complex narrative capability built into these worlds is key to their importance in our lives as the middle children of history. For one thing, the capability satisfies a desire to explore the Earth itself at a troubling, atomized time, one of shrinking mobility, loss of public space, rising instability and the depredations of late capitalism. The games’ verisimilitude also taps into much deeper longings concerning the planet.

The overwhelming beauty of visiting Elite Dangerous’ future version of our solar system is famous among the game’s player base. Players who livestream on Twitch have broken down in tears in front of their audiences as they watch the sun rise from orbit upon returning to Earth...

When my friend Edward Anthony and I first described the concept of the artificial wilderness in a co-authored 2020 essay, we described how climate grief manifests itself in open world gaming. Whether by design or not, the wilderness and its mechanics serve as a sort of barometer of the damage wrought by the effects of human-caused climate change. The games, particularly those set in vibrant oceans, lush forests, untouched 19th-century American landscapes and similar environs, represent carefully crafted, opulent depictions of a younger planet, snapshots from long before the Earth began succumbing to environmental ruin. As open worlds took steps toward breaking through into such uncanny valleys, they created dioramas of ecosystems that had ceased to exist and are too late to explore.

These artificial wildernesses are, of course, brought into being by insatiable, market-driven forces such as the desire for new intellectual property, technological advantage and profit—a vulgar hunger fed by massive data centers, 3D-rendering farms and exponentially expanding computer storage. Examples abound, but the release of the NVIDIA GeForce 4090 dedicated graphics card in 2022 marked a turning point in the appetite for simulated environments, a piece of hardware capable of rendering individual rays of light, accurate shadows and reflections. The card represents a massive increase in graphics processing but also requires substantially more power to operate than previous iterations.

As these constructed landscapes assemble an anti-monument to the decline of our planet, it depends upon digitization as actual material, infrastructure that demands endless extraction and consumption of the same dying planet it memorializes. In other words, the real planet is being devoured to fuel simulated, idealized versions of it.

Approaching Earth as a ship pilot and experiencing the hyperreal game design leaves me in a state of being fully immersed in the “para-real.” Image: Courtesy Frontier Developments

Alongside the replica of our known universe, Elite Dangerous also sports a complex model of galaxy-wide human economic and political activity. These systems ebb and flow in real time, shaped by AI simulations and actual market forces, as well as by narratives from the game’s creator, Frontier Developments. Markets and balances of power can be influenced over time through coordinated efforts organized by factions within the player base.

A few days after our visit to Earth, we log back into the artificial Milky Way. My passenger, still affected by the “para-real,” gazing upon the simulated Blue Marble, is keen to build a pilot’s profile and acquire a better ship to explore the vastness of space. We visit outposts and stations, scanning contract boards for lucrative job postings. As in all video game quest systems, the contracts on offer within the Elite Dangerous universe are partially determined by game mechanics and narrative. As we sift through glorified Uber Eats deliveries to destinations thousands of light years away, we see that the most lucrative jobs involve outright moral turpitude: human smuggling, environmental sabotage and assassination. Well beyond the activity known as “player griefing”—in which malicious, trolling players ambush and destroy unsuspecting or under-armed players for their own pleasure or benefit—Elite Dangerous presents a universe full of malevolence. Despite great scientific and technological advance, the year 3306 is as riddled with suffering and inequity as 2020: In one particularly barbaric act, my wingmate and I end up choosing to eject recovered human escape pods into the vacuum of space in exchange for a significant payout that allows us to afford a second long-distance ship.

The open world genre reveals itself as a silicon sarcophagus holding a vast archive of environments lost.

Of course, Elite Dangerous is built as dystopian science fiction, and such atrocities are core to the genre and its gameplay systems. But viewed against the game’s visual and environmental backdrops, the poetically beautiful re-imagining of our familiar and decaying world, the contradictions of such narrative begin to take on a political resonance. In a video titled “Minecraft, Sandboxes and Colonialism,” prominent YouTuber and critical theorist Dan Olsen details Minecraft’s mechanics of landscaping, crafting, hunting, resource harvesting and treatment of non-player character inhabitants. Seemingly benign and entirely rooted in the philosophy of play, these mechanics can easily combine to create situations that mimic similar acts of environmental, imperial and social brutality throughout human history, including ones happening right now.

This criticism cannot be leveled against Minecraft or Elite Dangerous alone. Other games involve scenarios like the arbitrary slaughter of animals to craft rare equipment or the demolition of procedurally generated but often pristine environments for raw minerals, and the open world almost always absolves the player from consequences for these actions in service of play. No Man’s Sky, a flamboyantly colorful competitor to Elite Dangerous, allows explorers to land on planets teeming with life and extract minerals and chemicals with impunity to power their characters’ life-support systems. Players are generally free to shape the open world based entirely on their own needs, with no regard for the non-player characters—a stark simulation of the consequence-free vibe of capitalism.

As the artificial wilderness continues to consume the real, so too does the player consume this replacement digitization. Perhaps the mechanics of extraction and destruction in realization of a player’s manifest destiny in fact complete the historical record—through gaming, the middle children of history are bequeathing the most detailed testimony available about how this all happened to planet Earth. Could they also come to understand how to stop it?

Cade Diehm is the founder of The New Design Congress, an international research organization working to forge a nuanced understanding of technology's role as a social, political and environmental accelerant. He studies, writes, consults and speaks regularly on topics such as digital power structures, privacy, information warfare, resilience, internet economies and the digitization of cities.